Indonesia Braces for Bush

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George W. Bush's first state visit to Indonesia on Nov. 20 is expected to last only half a day. But the brief sojourn has elicited an outsized response in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. Over the past few days, anti-Bush rallies have broken out across the 7,000-island nation, culminating Sunday in the capital Jakarta, where thousands of protesters flooded the streets, some holding banners labeling Bush a "war criminal" for U.S. actions in the Middle East.

"We do not hate Bush because he is an American or because he is a Christian," says Sobri Lubis, spokesman for the Islamic Defenders Front, which helped organize Sunday's anti-Bush rally and is infamous in Indonesia for sending thuggish vice squads to nightclubs and bars to expose lax Muslims. "We hate him because we think he is a war criminal and he has made the lives of Muslims miserable."

Other Indonesians voiced their disapproval for Bush's visit in more unusual ways. One of the nation's top witch-doctors, Gendheng Pamungkas, says he is perfecting a voodoo spell he will cast on Bush while he is in Indonesia. Tropical downpours, Gendheng says, will mar the American President's stay, scheduled for the tea-plantation retreat of Bogor rather than Jakarta, partly because of safety concerns. Confusing father and son's vegetable dislikes, Gendheng also promises to "turn the broccoli against Bush" — a vaguely threatening if puzzling hex. "I am casting this spell because it is what the majority of Indonesians want," explains Gendheng. Even the nation's two largest moderate Muslim organizations, which claim a combined 70 million members, have made disapproving noises about Indonesia hosting the U.S. president.

Although long regarded as a bastion of moderate Islam, Indonesia has experienced a religious revival since 1998, when democracy activists helped end the 32-year rule of strongman Suharto. Given unprecedented space to express their religiosity, members of the nation's 210 million Muslim population have built thousands of religious schools and mosques, some of which adhere to more conservative interpretations of Islam. The spiritual flowering has also emboldened radical elements, who have orchestrated a series of bombings that have claimed hundreds of lives in Jakarta and the resort island of Bali since 2002. And despite the fact that 10% of Indonesia's population is non-Muslim, more than 50 districts have implemented bylaws inspired by Islamic Shari'a law — requiring, among other things, elected leaders to be able to read the Koran in Arabic and all female students to cover their heads even if they are not Muslim.

"We have to guard against people who want to turn Indonesia into another Saudi Arabia," says Syafi'i Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism in Jakarta. "But in this political climate, if you say you are against the Shari'a bylaws, people say you are a bad Muslim, so no wonder so many are afraid to speak out."

Complicating matters is what Anwar calls "a global radical Islamic resurgence" that gains legitimacy from its vociferous opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Although Indonesia desperately needs to attract foreign investment, which has lagged since the bombing campaign started, President Bush remains uniformly unpopular. The U.S. is expected to roll out tens of millions of dollars in funding for health, anti-poverty and education schemes during Bush's Monday visit. But such handouts may do little to convince many Indonesians of American goodwill. "I do not trust Bush," says Mizram, a 20-year-old student who joined Sunday's rallies. "He says he wants freedom, but all he brings is trouble for Muslims. We should give him some trouble back." Given such sentiments in this moderate Muslim democracy, Bush may do well to skip the broccoli during his stay in Indonesia.

— With reporting by Zamira Loebis/Jakarta